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Arthur Sydney Waller may be best known as the white hunter who led a 3,000 mile personal safari for the Duke of Gloucester in 1928 and for the entourage of the first MGM major motion picture shot in Africa, Trader Horn, in 1930. Waller is somewhat lesser known as one of the early breeders of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, first registered as a standardized dog breed by the South African Kennel Union in 1924 as the “Lion Dog”, and imported from Rhodesia into Kenya by Waller that same year. According to the memoir of his second wife, Kathleen, he also exported the first dogs to his homeland, England, in 1927 where they made quite a splash at the Kennel Club Show at the Crystal Palace London in 1928.
The absolute origin of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is still not certain. It is believed that in the late 1880’s Dutch settlers in the Cape Colony of South Africa bred an imported hound dog from one of their trade routes (possibly from Malaysia) with the aboriginal canine hunting companion of the nomadic Khoikhoi peoples (then named the Hottentots). Although the earliest presence of domesticated dogs in Africa dates back to 4700 BCE in Egypt and around 600 BC in southern Africa, just how indigenous that local Khoikhoi breed was is unclear, although it is considered by many to be the original Ridgeback.
Above all else, the Ridgeback is distinguished by a raised ridge of opposing hairs along its spine. Its temperament and endurance endear the Ridgeback to its master. Characterized by its loyalty, sweet temper, and valor, this barrel-chested animal was an ardent protector of the farmsteads, flocks, and campsites of the ever-widening colonial settlements. In the early 20th century big game hunters like Waller became very attracted to the Ridgeback because of the dogs’ renowned ability to “ball up” or keep at bay large animals such as lions.
Eventually, in large part due to Waller, a standardized breed of Ridgeback made its way north-northeast from the Cape area through Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe) and into Kenya, where Waller had moved to profit from the influx of wealthy Englishmen and Americans keen on game hunting for sport. Waller died in Nairobi in 1952 of malaria, but during his lifetime the direct progeny of his Ridgebacks made their way to England, America, India, and Sweden.
Currently the Waller materials are being mined for historical documentation on the development of the Ridgeback breed. The Waller archive in the Russell E. Train Africana Collection includes several Sydney Waller photograph and news clipping albums (annotated!) and an unpublished memoir by Mrs. Kathleen Waller.
The Train collection, consisting largely of 19th and early 20th century Africana and featuring books, manuscripts, photographs, and artworks focused on exploration, adventure, and game hunting, awaits further exploration. Within, you can find material by and about David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Francis Burton, Sydney Waller, and slew of others. To plumb the depths of this collection, contact the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History for information on access.
All images from the Russell E. Train Africana Collection in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
*Author's correction (12/16/2011): The Waller family lived in Southern Rhodesia, not South Africa as was origially captioned in the photo above with the two family pets. The name Fairview refers to the family homestead, not the city in South Africa. Thanks to Linda Costa for catching this misinformation!